Good morning. My heart is full and I am honored—it is a gift to be here with you.
I am thankful for your invitation and gracious hospitality, for your openness and fierce faithfulness, for your consistent work and witness in the world.
I bring greetings and gratitude from Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). For more than forty years, Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund have argued that child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children and the cradle to prison pipeline are not acts of God but the results of America's immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed. For more than 40 years, CDF has been consistent in our confrontations with political and religious leaders as we work for justice for all children in this nation—working to redefine and reprioritize the budget and values of the wealthiest nation in the world, the nation that has more than 15.5 million children living in poverty.
We cannot imagine doing this work without United Methodist Women. You have partnered with CDF over the years through your ongoing support the Children's Sabbath and Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools across the nation. CDF Freedom Schools provide summer and after school programs shaped by the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement—programs that increase literacy, stop summer learning loss and engage students in cultural history and art, creativity and conflict resolution, learning about their communities and becoming change agents. Garlinda Burton, director of the Nashville Freedom Schools, is a deaconess in your prayer calendar.
You are our partners in working to dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline and stopping the criminalization of people of color. There is no other struggle in this country that reveals the inequities in our society more clearly than this pipeline and the criminal justice system. As Marian Wright Edelman often notes, "Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid and poor children of color are the fodder."
Some of you have already signed up for our 2017 Samuel DeWitt Proctor Child Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry "Hope for Our Future: From Weeping to Working for Justice for Our Children." There are too many powerful prophetic speakers to list, but know that they include Marian Wright Edelman and Jim Lawson, architect of nonviolent direct action organizing; Willie Francois, Cynthia Jarvis, Luke Powery, Traci Blackmon, Freddie Haynes, Yolanda Pierce, Ched Myers, Sister Simone Campbell, Mark Lewis Taylor, Greg Ellison, America Bracho and many more.
I am deeply grateful to United Methodist Women and all the prophets, poets, preachers, pastors, prayers and passionate practitioners of resurrection in this room. My heart is full and I am glad down to my toes. You enlarge my hope, increase my courage and stir up the joy and certainty that a fresh wind is blowing; God's spirit is here and now loose among us, disrupting and disturbing, making all things new.
There's a fresh wind blowing. Nicodemus moves out of its path, the Samaritan woman dances directly into the whirlwind and now in Acts 2, the Pentecost story, the disciples, terrified and confused, are ambushed by the Holy spirit. God's spirit erupts, sounding like the rush of a violent wind, filling the entire house and touching every single person with tongues of fire.
And the church is born. What an astounding story. Church is not the result of General Conference or a special task force. It's not the result of somebody's hard work or good ideas. It's not the result of a marketing study to define what people want or a new curriculum, new order of worship or new pastor. It's not even voted on. Instead, it is this wonderful, powerful, confusing even frightening gift that comes from God.
When male disciples cast lots in Acts 1, they were certain they only needed to identify one man to replace Judas and qualify as a resurrection witness; one man who had been with them since John's baptism of Jesus and had remained until his execution.
But then God's spirit, wind, breath, comes crashing into the room and everyone—men, women, young, old, enslaved, powerful, those new to the movement and those who had been there since before John baptized Jesus—everyone is touched by tongues of fire and a wind that pushes them out of hiding and into the streets, creating such a commotion that folks from all over come to see what is going on. These Jesus people are speaking in languages that everyone can identify with.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is speaking in such a way that all those who hear understand the stories of God's good news in their mother tongue, connecting with folks where and how they are.
And if we had time we might begin to imagine what it would mean for us to speak in the language of the ancestors, people of this land, indigenous peoples cut off from homelands, robbed of resources including their mother tongue. What might it mean for the church to speak the language of immigrants or migrant laborers, the language of impoverished moms and hungry kids, the language of folks locked up in cages and those locked out of the church, the language of children and teens, the language of those who have no place to lay their heads at night, no safe space for rest, no way to get from under the abuse or fear that assaults them day after day.
The Holy Spirit spills into the streets creating radical transformation, real change, and the church becomes a visible alternative to empire, to the way things are, defying the systems of death in the name of the Lord of life.
This is not a spirit that makes life easier, solves all our problems or provides wealth and prosperity. In contrast, this spirit creates a community marked by radical equality and a manna economy in which everyone has enough, all possessions are shared and no one is left out. This spirit sends folks out to confront the powers that be; and when they are locked up and finally set free, they pray to the Spirit for the courage to continue the struggle.
This Holy Spirit ignites a kind of holy boldness that only comes from people no longer afraid of death; empowered to live life not shaped, limited or destroyed by the powers of death. In spite of all that appears to be true, all who say they are in control, all the powers that be and their attempts to define who we are and how we live, Jesus Christ was risen means all other powers are reduced to nothing. They have no power over our lives, we have been set free.
United Methodist elder and theologian Ted Jennings notes that Jesus is a political prisoner because he deliberately persists in political confrontation and calculated defiance of authorities; Jennings defines the cross as the consequence of the proclamation and practice of the coming reign of God and argues that the reign of God is not the same as the reign of Caesar, any Caesar, even an enlightened Caesar; the way of love is not the same as the way of domination and division.
And biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman emphasizes that the power of empire numbs us, seduces us, lures us into complacency and complicity with powers that be so that we begin to accept the empire's definitions of reality. Then, he says, not only does the dominant system appear normative and beyond fundamental criticism, it also seems ordained and authorized to be enduring, so that we cannot think apart from it, cannot remember without it and cannot imagine a future time when life could be shaped differently.
Think about what our nation has come to accept as normal: healthcare is not a human right but a privilege sold to those with money or good health insurance; shooting an unarmed young black teenager walking home from the store is not a crime but being an immigrant is; spending three times more on prisons than on public education resulting in an inequitable public education system that leaves more than 80% of African American and Latino children unable to read at grade level; voting rights are not guaranteed for all citizens of this nation—not for the more than 6 million convicted of a felony and not for those who are impoverished and cannot produce photo I.D. cards. And in spite of all the evidence, all the melting glaciers and rising seas, all the disappearing species and dying waters, we are still debating whether climate change and global warming are real.
These texts and United Methodist Women remind us that the Church is not an escape. The Church is not a safe haven where we come to avoid the problems of the world around us. The Church is a community that empowers us to wade into struggles in Jesus' name. Church prepares us not for some heaven after we die but for confronting powers here and now, uncovering, unmasking systems and structures of empire and domination, in us and in the world around us.
Here and now the church is to embody alternatives, make visible possibilities for healing and liberation, telling the story of all that God is doing among us. The Church makes visible that change is not only possible but already happening; that forces of death, as powerful as they are, will not have the last word, that we need not be defined or silenced by powers that seek to possess.
We are called to be God's contrast community, to embody kingdom living here and now. There is no neutral position. Not to take sides, to remain silent, is to side with those in power, becoming theological justifiers for the way things are—domesticating, downsizing, privatizing the gospel in defiance of this Jesus who, as Jennings notes, refuses to compromise with anything that undermines life. This Jesus whose love is not limited or redefined or narrowed by the warning of colleagues, opposition and threats from political powers and religious hierarchies or lack of response from the people around him.
Can you imagine a church reborn by the power of God's spirit? How might we become open to this fresh wind blowing?
What if we moved Christian education out of seminaries and church buildings and into the streets? What if we worked on developing street corner theology through mutuality and authentic partnership with those who are impoverished, imprisoned, locked up and out, listening to and learning from folks on the margins? What might it mean for us to listen to the gospel on the banks of a river among those who are homeless? Or at midnight in the alleys behind the bus station? How might we re-hear Luke 6—"Blessed are you who are poor" and "woe to you who are rich"—while standing in front of a bank? Or a for-profit health care company? Or in the middle of a shopping mall? Or inside a for-profit prison? What might it mean to hear the gospel critique our culture? I am convinced the scandals associated with Enron, Worldcom, foreclosures and the big banks are not simply individual moral failings but the result of an unchecked, unchallenged culture of greed.
What if we redefined our volunteers in mission work as Christian education for first world countries, recognizing our need to learn from communities around the globe who are struggling with the consequences of empire and who are embodying kingdom living here and now? United Methodist Women's mission study on "Listening to Latin America" clearly pushes us to become partners with those on the margin, those "silenced by official collaboration of compliant church with murderous states."
Journalist Philp Gourevitch notes that power is the ability to force others to inhabit your version of their reality. All too often our efforts at mission and international aid do exactly that.
The number one form of violence in the Bible and the world is structural economic violence. An average of 10,000 children die each day from hunger and malnutrition that is entirely preventable. The Bible reminds us that Biblical sin is not simply individual but corporate sin. Our systems do our sinning for us. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Speaking of Sin, that's why Micah challenges the economic systems in which foreclosures by wealthy landowners turn the poor out of their homes, in which unjust laws hit women and children the hardest and preachers who say what people want us to say. Then, Bishop Ken Carder declares, we begin to define evangelism as "find a need and fill it" instead of "announce God's reign and live it." We see individual conversion as more central to the gospel than shaping communities that are a sign and a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
What if we redefined children's ministry so that it becomes ministry with all God's children instead of limiting it to the children of adults who come to church on Sunday? What if we opened our hearts and buildings to the millions of young folks who are hungry for identity and belonging, kids who are struggling with poverty, racism, violence and school systems so quick to label them unteachable. What might it mean to listen to United Methodist Women and our Wesleyan heritage and push for a public education system that makes it clear all God's children are gifted? This requires justice, not just charity.
Charity is handing out backpacks without changing the systems that perpetuate poverty. As theologian and United Methodist elder Pam Couture reminds us, charity is dangerous because it makes us feel good while masking our complicity with systems that cause the problems in the first place.
Justice demands partnership with those who are oppressed. It requires ministry with, not ministry to or for. This authentic mutual partnership becomes the priority that redefines everything else, not one more program. Justice means showing up in the prisons and jails, not with answers but with questions, hungry to learn gospel good news from folks for whom breaking chains and opening prison doors is urgent stuff.
What might it mean for the church and United Methodist Women to move this nation from retribution and revenge into restorative, transformative justice? What might it look like to continue to call for, educate about, advocate for and learn from the truth and reconciliation work in South Africa, Guatemala, Rwanda and Greensboro North Carolina, knowing that we cannot get to healing and reconciliation without truth-telling?
We are invited to be God's contrast community, God's demonstration plot, or as Anne Lamott says, "God's sign language in a world gone deaf." People are to look at us and see the alternative. Or as South African Bishop Peter Storey puts it, "We are God's visual aid." Beyond our wildest dreams God comes, inviting us to feast and laugh and dance and dream, empowering us to be persistent, passionate, prophetic practitioners of resurrection, calling forth life from places of death, the body of Christ in and for and with the world. We are called not to just join the church but be the church, knowing we are called to advocate and agitate, organize and strategize, reconcile and redeem, companion and comfort, trouble and transform, knowing that change is not only possible, it's already happening.
Call: People get ready!
Response: A change is gonna come!
There is a fresh wind blowing, for the Spirit of God is even now moving among us to disturb our apathy, challenge our complacency, and set us on fire with a holy passion for justice, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!
The way the world is, is not the way it's supposed to be; we serve the God who yearns for the healing and wholeness of all creation, the God who causes deserts to bloom and water to run in dry places, the God who sends us to be agents of change and challenge, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!
With the help of God and each other, we leave here ready to be the church, the body of Christ in and for the world, to engage powers and principalities, to expose, unmask, challenge and confront, contradict and dismantle systems and structures of injustice one piece at a time, in the name of the One who calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation and redemption, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!
For God is even now breaking down the walls that divide and building up the ties that bind us together, teaching us to dance on the common ground of God's astonishing, amazing, marvelous, startling, awesome, world-transforming, death-defying, life-giving, joy-creating grace; sending us to be channels of healing and hope, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!
God still brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, empowering us to be instruments of justice, generosity and wild, wonderful, spilling over, cannot be contained joy, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!
For God gives us this day, the vision and a holy boldness to turn dreams into reality, to live as kingdom people here and now with passion and persistence, with outrageous hope and creative courage, with soul-stirring laughter and a wide open love that's just going to stun the world, so people get ready!
A change is gonna come!